Part II: The Costs of Creative Destruction: Wendell Berry vs. Gene Sperling
By William Neil
June 2, 2012 - 8:11am ET
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PART II: Wendell Berry Applies “Conservative” Classical Christian Humanism to the Economy
I had nearly completed this essay when I came across an article in the New York Times about Wendell Berry, who had just given, on April 23rd, 2012, the Jefferson Lecture of the National Endowment for the Humanities, “the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities.” Wendell Berry was no stranger to me. I had read his essays decades ago when I subscribed to Harper’s magazine, and anyone who labored in the environmental field as I did was always seeing references to Berry, but I had never bought his books until I ordered two several months ago. I had started in on The Unsettling of America, one of his best known of fifty or more, from1977, but had only gotten 55 pages or so along, and had not even turned a page of the very recent What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth (2010).
The truth is I had assigned Berry to my own imagined niche for him as an “agrarian fundamentalist,” using his Kentucky farm as a pulpit from which he could deliver jeremiads about our industrial agricultural system, and what it has done to farmers, food and the environment. He was also too nostalgic, I thought, like a literary John Sloane. And I was at least partly correct in my assignment of this niche: the article that led me to his Jefferson lecture was written by Mark Bittman, the New York Times’ “food columnist.” It had a simple title – “Wendell Berry, American Hero,” but the “new” Berry I found inside wasn’t just writing about agriculture and food. Berry’s lecture, whose preparation had “‘taxed him greatly,’” was about “the costs of capitalism’s abuse of humans and land.” Hmmm…I thought, you don’t hear many people inside the Beltway talk about capitalism “abusing humans,” not even progressive Democrats. Wall Street bankers yes, certainly, they have surely and systematically abused us, but only recently; the whole economic system? No. Bittman then further quoted him saying that “‘the two great aims of industrialism – replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy – seem close to fulfillment.’” Reading that, I was off to the speech itself, and six of the essays from What Matters, so I could get a better feel of how things have evolved in Berry’s mind.
So what should greet me in the speech’s opening trope but another variation on the infamous “settle” of the sharecropper’s world, the one that Nicholas Leman described to such great effect in his already mentioned The Promised Land, when the black sharecropper went to see what his family’s year’s work amounted to under the land owner’s “assessment system.” (This was in the Mississippi Delta region, in a chapter called “Clarksdale.”) You can guess what that usually was – nothing – which is what Wendell Berry’s grandfather gets in 1907, even though he owned his own farm, seemingly a vast step up from sharecropping. But not that much of a step up; tobacco in that region was under the control of James B. Duke’s American Tobacco Company, a monopoly, one which Berry says held the keys to the fate of thousands of tobacco farms . (It was also one that would be ordered broken up by an anti-trust decision in 1906, one not enforced until the Supreme Court upheld the order in 1911, proceedings which Berry did not include in his speech but which suggest he read the power relationships correctly.)
Now I was really beginning to warm up to this distant Wendell Berry figure. And my memory was making some more direct connections Anyone who grew up in New Jersey in the twentieth century had driven, many times, past the vast and somewhat mysterious Doris Duke estate along Route 206 north of Princeton, New Jersey, which was set off by a stone wall and whose entrance had a conspicuous guardhouse. Ms. Duke was the daughter of the James B. Duke in Berry’s speech, although I do not recall anyone mentioning that her inheritance had come, at least in part, from the squeezing of small tobacco farmers, nor do I recall the other family enterprises in textile mills and power generation being mentioned. In New Jersey, the Duke name was connected with gardens sometimes open to the public, philanthropy and the doings of Ms. Duke herself, who was, to put it politely, a “character” and an independent one - not with how the inherited money was made.
It almost goes without saying that “in America,” the America of the Republican Right of 2012, people like Wendell Berry are supposed to – especially coming from Kentucky and “making it” as a writer, if not a farmer - “get over it” – get over experiences like this one, which, after all, didn’t happen to him directly, barely happened to his father, who was just six at the time. For heaven’s sake, it happened to his grandfather, more than a decade after William Jennings Bryant’s defeat in 1896.
But this Berry doesn’t want to let go, and he’s giving this speech right in front of the late American Empire’s free market worshipping establishment. And it seems he’s rubbing it in: early in the speech he recalls his encounter, at Duke University, with the legacy of James B. Duke, in the form of a statue, where Mr. Duke, on the proverbial pedestal, stands with a cigar in hand, between inscriptions reading INDUSTRIALIST and PHILANTHROPIST.
Berry is now really pulling me in, reminding me of my freshman year at Lafayette College, staring at the imposing 1929-1930 building that is the Fredrick P. Kirby Hall of Civil Rights (Kirby was co-founder of F.W. Woolworth, Co) along with its façade, inscribed, just below the pediment, so that you can’t overlook the biblical words: “IS IT NOT LAWFUL FOR ME TO DO WHAT I WILL WITH MY OWN?” The building was said to be, per square foot, the most costly in the nation, designed and worked on by some of the most prestigious firms in the nation. The inscription is taken from Matthew 20:15, which can be turned into a generous owner’s right of contract interpretation, or an instance of rank unfairness to the laborers who worked all day for the same pay awarded to those who only worked an hour; Matthew 20:16, I must note, reads “So the last will be first, and the first last,” which didn’t make it up on any of the walls.
I have to say that I never took kindly, or lightly, to that Kirby inscription, with its ominous implications, which to my imagination summoned up the absolute powers once associated with the slave owners of the old South, or even earlier feudal lords in the Middle Ages.
Wendell Berry’s thoughts grew more troubled too, as he reconsidered his grandfather’s relation to the man behind the cold Duke monument: “…I began to think of him also as a kind of man standing in thematic opposition to a man of an entirely different kind. And I could see finally that between these two kinds there was a failure of imagination that was ruinous, that belongs indelibly to our history and that has continued, growing worse, into our own time.”
I have italicized the word imagination here, because it becomes a word which leads, in Berry’s carefully laid out structure of logic and emotion, to the keystone word of the address, and its title, It All Turns on Affection. His meaning for imagination implies its grounding in a close, local world of “tangible connections,” and that type of imagination leads to “sympathy” for “the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind and conserving economy.” Berry is calling for a very different economy, one built on small scale farming, ranches, shops and trades that sell once again to close regional market cities, and much of the power of his speech comes from the jarring contrast between such an imagined, “restorative economy,” one that he is physically engaged in creating, and the one we have now. In a world where many of the powerful call for more preemptive austerity to be visited upon the already poor, and some call for a new preemptive war against Iran, who can “imagine” the kind of man calling for “preemptive sympathy”?
I wanted to get these key terms out in front of what Berry then says, and what I am about to write about him, because it is a bit of a shock to experience such gentle, humanitarian words used so unabashedly in talking about the political economy, and also because I want my readers to appreciate the moral restraint built into the man’s work. Because of my own focus upon the costs of the “creative destruction” at the center of our economy, and the extent of the human suffering in the ongoing crisis, I am necessarily going to highlight Berry’s harsher judgments which have been made along very similar lines to my own. He makes his judgments about the nature of the larger economic world from the closely observed impacts that its core ideas have had upon humans and nature in his local, rural one. Readers, though, shouldn’t lose sight of the restrained, even courtly manner in which Berry delivered this address (which is consistent with the tone of most of his other essays), nor of the grounded character, humane vision of the different one he wants to build. (For those who want to hear, instead of read, here’s the link at http://events.tvworldwide.com/Events/NEH2012JeffersonLecture.aspx?VID=ev...
Berry makes much of the “remote control” nature of the industrial economy, and its strong inclination to use statistics as a form of distant control. Perhaps worrying that he sounded too personal in his criticism of the James B. Duke, tobacco trust, he qualifies it by stating that it “exerted oppression that was purely economic, involving a mechanical indifference, the indifference of a grinder to what it grinds…it did not intent to victimize its victims. It simply followed its single purpose of the highest possible profit, and ignored the ‘side effects.’” Among those “side effects,” are, unfortunately, the small farmer then, at the turn of the century, and now, as well as the ecology of the land communities. Berry is looking far ahead though, to the cumulative effects of these practices because “there is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people.” The language he uses in this section of the speech becomes increasingly blunt. The economic system operating on the land to such ill effect is the same one operating in the broader economy, one that has “an impersonal, abstract selfishness,” that is “limitlessly acquisitive, but unable to look so far ahead as to preserve its own sources and supplies.” He compares the agribusiness corporations to the fossil fuel industries which are, “by nature…self-annihilating…” These are the great qualifiers that Berry adds to the celebrated “productivity” of American agriculture, that have to be placed in close proximity to the “inevitability” phrases like the ones Gene Sperling employs, that they are just the “price of progress” or “creative destruction.”
Berry is deeply troubled by another undeniable aspect of the “industrial economy,” one central to the economics profession and all the political dialogue from the Center and Right which bears upon it, and that is the joyful abandonment of any sense of human limits, our near absolute faith “in science, finance and technology” and the “limitless” growth that they will – must – produce. He isn’t very precise about when, exactly, we abandoned our “old understanding” that we could never be “‘as gods’”; in fact, he says it was fairly recently, which I have to question, based on my previous reference to the “Unbound Prometheus” of the Industrial Revolution, which dates from 1750-1830. Berry also wrote an essay entitled Faustian Economics (2006) which relied upon a bargain made with the devil for unlimited human knowledge, not from Goethe’s Faust of 1808 & 1832, but from an even earlier one, Christopher Marlowe’s Tragical History of Doctor Faustus from the early 17th century.
We shouldn’t worry, though, over the exact date when the human limits imposed by the Christian restraints of the Middle Ages were first abandoned. There were earlier classical, pre-Christian ones, certainly; you will be on pretty solid ground arguing that the Renaissance in the Italian city states, especially Florence, Milan and Venice, had produced merchants, bankers, manufacturers, princes, condottiere and artists who had thrown off most “medieval” restraints in both the personal and public economic realm. It is true, fragments of restraints remained, and historian Perry Miller made his name tracing their declining importance at the hands of a vigorous capitalism in 17th century New England. Yet decade by decade throughout the 19th and 20th century, as the material wealth of society has grown, economists have become preoccupied with maintaining high economic growth rates, because, as critics from Marx to Keynes to David Harvey have pointed out, when the growth rate drops below 3% the system is in trouble. While the Great Depression of the 1930’s set off much probing of the value system behind capitalism, from both the left and the right, the dramatic disappearance of growth and the deprivations of World War II only intensified its pursuit during the “golden days” of 1945-1973, until high inflation and the rise of the environmental movement in the 1970’s re-introduced the idea of “limits,” of restraints. These new restraints, if you stop to think about it, fell chiefly upon the income side, on labor and the unions, not on profits and the upper levels of management, although business never ceased its complaints about the restraints imposed by OSHA, the FDA, the FCC, the SEC, the EPA. Restraints on the free flow of capital and goods were bad, and the free trade and globalization that resulted when they were lifted were good - very good. With inflation subdued even under the wildest of boom times in the late 1990’s, only the fiercest of the inflation hawks at the Fed, the most serious environmentalists, and those concerned with stopping Global Warming, now talked openly of limits.
In the wake of the great financial wreckage caused by the hubris of Wall Street, and the lack of sufficient growth in an economy which has not fully recovered from the Great Recession of 2008-2009, there is once again a great hunger for unrestrained growth as the frenzy for domestic oil and gas drilling shows, yet it is deeply shadowed by the voices of those saying that the nature of that growth, and perhaps the growth itself, cannot take place in the old channels. Nature, and perhaps human nature, can’t withstand capitalism as we’ve known it.
So with that background in mind, here is the heart of the message that Wendell Berry delivered to the Beltway insiders on April 23rd, the message that America didn’t heed back in the 1920’s and 1930’s when the Southern Agrarians, like Allen Tate, whom Berry refers to, took “their stand”:
"But now, three-quarters of a century later, we are no longer talking about theoretical alternatives to corporate rule. We are talking with practical urgency about an obvious need. Now the two great aims of industrialism – replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hand of a small plutocracy – seem close to fulfillment. At the same time the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny. Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good. It has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society. Among its characteristic signs are destroyed communities, neighborhoods, families, small businesses, and small farms. It has failed just as conspicuously and more dangerously to conserve the wealth and health of nature. No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it, no pointless rhetoric on the virtues of capitalism or socialism, no billions or trillions spent on ‘defense’ of the ‘American dream,’ can for long disguise this failure."
No aspect of the modern economic world, the one so quaintly still described by Berry as “industrialism,” has come in for so little critical thinking on the part of economists as the actual pace of change, especially the pace of technological change. This is ironic for a political world, based in England and the United States, which has emphatically emphasized its “conservatism” since the rise of Thatcher and Reagan in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. But the Right and the Center, indeed nearly all the economics profession implicitly exclude creative destruction, innovation, technological change, “dynamism” or “fierce global competition” from any type of “interrogation” by the common sense meanings of the word “conservative.” (And how happily most “conservatives” today oblige in this.) Indeed, they explicitly forbid human beings from any type of philosophical shelter from these forces of change; that task is left to “faith and family,” as if they were not subject to the gale force winds themselves. Let us not forget how Gene Sperling, back on March 27, 2012, at the manufacturing conference, made that explicit for us: “Of course, dynamism – the so called ‘creative destruction’ and fierce global competition – are facts of economic life. We can never pretend that we can or should drive them to a halt.”
Berry, to be clear, doesn’t think that “the losses and damages characteristic of our present economy (can) be stopped, let alone restored, by ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ tweakings of corporate industrialism…” What he thinks will deliver “authentic correction” I will consider later. But for now, it is very useful to give a sense of the damages resulting, because the ones Berry highlights are not often cited in the common political discourse. First is the “not very stretchable human limit…our ability to tolerate or adapt to change.” We’ve seen the terrible effects of pushing people beyond human psychological limits when soldiers have been subject to too many combat tours, yet remembering Gene Sperling’s vocabulary above, Berry says that “…with relentless fanfare, at the cost of almost indescribable ecological and social disorder, and to the almost incalculable enrichment and empowerment of corporations, industrialists have substituted what they fairly accurately call ‘revolution’ for the slower, kinder processes of adaptation or evolution…And the cycle of obsolescence and innovation, goaded by crazes of fashion, has given the corporate economy a controlling share of everybody’s income.”
Because this line of reasoning is usually only heard in the far reaches of academe, I’m not sure whether the public would say that the “convenience and comfort and some easing of pain” that Berry acknowledges as benefits from industrialism were not worth the costs he is compiling with such power, on the debit side of the ledger. Berry, it is said, does not use a computer; yet I would think that most Americans, including me, acknowledge the benefits of the Internet and computers, and perhaps most basic forms of IT. Personally, I think there is a clear law of diminishing returns when it comes to pushing into Twittering, Facebook and all the attempts to compress the laptop into the handhelds. I have seen many traditional forms of humane communication diminish before my eyes, as I pass by people in my neighborhood, their heads down, eyes on their phones and ears plugged, at times seemingly having conversations with themselves, or perhaps just entranced by the technology. On the left some had hoped that universal and instantaneous communications tools would lead to a new Beatitude: “Blessed are the Organized” as one Princeton University author suggested it in a book title. It seems, though, it may just as likely result in a more frequent exchange of the minutia of everyday life. Twittering can easily convey the title of Berry’s lecture, but not its depth and insights. As the “compression of time and space” proceed past all their old historical milestones in travel and communication, we now have the arrival of Flash Trading in financial markets, the chief benefit of which, to those who can afford the super-computers involved, seems to be to enable the owners to use their new millisecond advantage to elicit the trading moves of their competitors, and to act on that information before the observed trade is executed: what amounts to both espionage and insider trading in one fast swoop.
No wonder that Berry delivers to us some new twists on our vaunted social and economic “mobility,” and its always implied “upward” direction. It has been, “in fact…an ever-worsening unsettlement of our people, and the extinction or near-extinction of traditional and necessary communal structures.” Berry goes far beyond my own reservations about technology, but surely he is right when he asks “what technology can replace personal privacy or the coherence of a family or a community? What technology can undo the collateral damages of an inhuman rate of technological change?” (My emphasis.)
Berry’s Jefferson Lecture left me hungry to read further, to consider how his ideas may have changed over time, or how consistent they might or might not be, as reflected in his writings collected as What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth (2010). There, in an essay from 1988, entitled “Economy and Pleasure,” we can watch him reflect upon one of the modern economy’s most cherished ideals, that of “competition.” What we find when he does, though, is the head-on collision of competition with “affection,” that keystone word of his: “what the ideal of competition most flagrantly and disastrously excludes is affection.” Furthermore, competition runs smack into another requirement of the good economy for Berry because “it neither proposes, nor implies any limits.” Is there any greater form of heresy under the capitalism of our age, at least in the West, than to question the absolute good that results from economic competition – which of course can’t, because it is so good for us, be eliminated from other important realms of our lives?
So what is the nature of the charges that Berry levels against competition? The first is that it creates raw divisions in society which Berry says are different than the older and more usual historic ones, including those between the rich and the poor, more and less able, ruled and rulers, which have been “at times, at least…ameliorated by social and religious ideals that instructed the strong to help the weak.” But, “as a purely economic ideal, competition does not contain or imply any such instructions. In fact, the defenders of the ideal of competition have never known what to do with or for the losers.” Berry mocks the ongoing mantra of retraining and moving to different work as “utterly cynical; it is only the hand-washing practiced by officials and experts.” That sounds very harsh, doesn’t it? But consider the words David Cohn, a “literary lawyer-businessman” of the Mississippi Delta, writing in 1947 about the mechanically displaced black sharecroppers who are heading north:
"Five million people will be removed from the land within the next few years. They must go somewhere. But where? They must do something. But what? They must be housed. But where is the housing? Most of this group are farm Negroes totally unprepared for urban, industrial life. How will they be industrially absorbed? What will be the effect of throwing them upon the labor market? What will be their reception at the hands of white and Negro workers whose jobs and wages they threaten...If tens of thousands of Southern Negroes descent upon communities totally unprepared for them psychologically and industrially, what will the effect be upon race relations in the United States?... There is an enormous tragedy in the making unless the United States acts, and acts promptly…" (Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land (1991), page 51.)
Berry doesn’t reference the circumstances that Lemann wrote so powerfully about, but he has his own object of fury, how the colleges of agriculture have “presided over the now nearly completed destruction of their constituency – the farm people and the farm communities.” This first-hand experience within agriculture leads him to invoke the restraints implied by the classical-Christian-humanist tradition: “the danger of the ideal of competition is that it neither proposes nor implies any limits. It proposes simply to lower costs at any cost, and to raise profits at any cost. It does not hesitate at the destruction of the life of a family or the life of a community… and for this reason the human economy is pitted without limit against nature.”
And then by logical extension, Berry tends to the “ominous” political aspects of unlimited competition. “…that unlimited economic competitiveness proposes an unlimited concentration of economic power…the class of winners will become ever smaller, the class of losers ever larger. And that, obviously, is now happening. The usable property of our country, once divided somewhat democratically, is owned by fewer and fewer people every year.” Although these quotes are all taken from the essay “Economy and Pleasure,” written in 1988, you can see how their intellectual momentum built to make Berry a logical recipient of the Jefferson Lecture award.
What’s most compelling in Berry’s speech, and in this collection of essays, is his conclusion that an economy built upon limitless competition, and limitless scientific invention, that celebrates “creative destruction” but that is seemingly blind to accurately assessing its costs, is one that has in fact turned against man, community, society and nature. It is so limitless in its reach, it has even threatened, if not captured, the place that should be most able to resist its encroachments: “The idea of the teacher and scholar as one called upon to preserve and pass on a common cultural and natural birthright has been almost entirely replaced by the idea of the teacher and scholar as a developer of ‘human capital,’ and a bestower of economic advantage.” (From Economy and Pleasure). That indeed is close to the way Democrats talk about the necessity for further education and training: as a way to appease the job “gods” when they are feeling “uncertain,” almost a completely utilitarian view of learning, with even “research and development,” those supposedly glowing embers of pure learning, being fanned in hope of igniting the practical fires of innovation and further creative destruction.
Berry, however, is calling for a new economy and way of living, based on older but forgotten values:
…without this informed, practical, and practiced affection, the nation and its economy will conquer and destroy the country…against that limitlessness, in which we foresee assuredly our ruin, we have only our ancient effort to define ourselves as human and humane…and so I am nominating economy for an equal standing among the arts and humanities. I mean, not economics, but economy, the making of the human household upon the earth…this is the economy that the most public and influential economists never talk about, the economy that is the primary vocation and responsibility of every one of us. (From the Jefferson Lecture, April 23rd, 2012, It All Turns Upon Affection; my emphasis.)
Let us all reflect for a few moments on the bitter irony of Berry’s invocation of the classical-Christian tradition’s sense of human limits to a “total economy” that is built around core concepts that accept none. Stop and think of who it is in today’s political economy’s discourse that is calling for limits to Social Security benefits, and union power, and medical coverage, to the interventions into the economy on behalf of the unemployed and foreclosed upon. It is the “austerians,” the conservatives who are invoking all these limits upon the retired and the workforce, those lucky enough to be in it. Their allies over the past 35-40 years have been the religious conservatives who are only too eager to invoke the classical and Christian limits on personal human excesses, as in William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. Look closely, and you will see that all these conservative uses of limits seem to apply to the individual realm, while in the realm of the aggrandizing economy, which nearly everyone is dependent upon these days, as Berry concedes (“We are all implicated”) much effort is expended to remove all limits to the concentration of wealth, the extent of tax cuts and regulatory roll backs. Even when the fate of nature itself may be at stake, there is conservative outrage and revolt at the thought of limits in the form of governmental regulations. Even when it is industry’s old handmaiden, science itself, which comes forth to suggest a clear limit to the amount of C02 the atmosphere can tolerate, it is science and scientists who are then in the docket, not the values and trajectory of “The Total Economy,” the title a Berry essay from 2000. What a fascinating moral dichotomy between the public and private realms, the personal and the economic system, when it comes to invoking the classical and Judeo-Christian tradition of limits.
I found it impossible, given Berry’s focus on agriculture and the local economy, as well as his religious-ethical sources, not to wonder about his connections to the Southern Agrarians who proclaimed “their revolt against liberal capitalism” in 1930 under the title of I’ll Take my Stand.
That sent me back to one of my favorite source books on 20th Century American thought, Richard H. Pells Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years (1973) to get a refresher course in the Agrarians, and to be reminded that they had some impressive contributors like John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren and Donald Davidson. One of Pells’ great virtues as an intellectual historian is his ability to convey the cross-currents of ideas, how they can send seemingly congenial signals to very different ideological audiences, something quite relevant for Berry’s own work, which appeals to some religious conservatives as well as most environmentalists (but not, I suspect, to most economists, including progressive ones). Indeed, the authors Pells covers in his third chapter, “The Search for Community,” still have great relevance for the issues of our day, with the fate of the environment now standing in roughly the same center stage spotlight as the fate of “the workers” once did in the 1930’s, with the dominant corporate powers still championing a highly competitive, individualistic capitalism and ethos, even as, once again, oligopoly and monopoly are the actual and logical results of the competitions in so many important industries. In 2012, the individual in society, and the worker still in the declining unions, face a hyper-competitive and vastly speeded up economic system with the fewest institutional supports they have ever had since the unraveling of the world that the New Deal made, which began in the 1970’s. So let’s begin to look at the similarities and differences of the two great crises of capitalism, 1929-1939 and 2008….still ongoing as we write.
At their best, and at the highest common denominator with other critics of the capitalism of the 1920’s and 1930’s, the Southern Agrarians said that the system was “too acquisitive, too profit-oriented, and too individualistic. Free enterprise stood in their minds for chaos, fragmentation, atomism, division, specialization, maladjustment among groups and individuals” while “agrarianism…was regularly identified with unity, wholeness, harmony, balance, integrated personalities.” Despite the acute economic distress of the Great Depression, the Agrarians, surprisingly “like other intellectuals in the 1930’s…were not so much concerned with the particular economic evils that flowed from capitalism as they were with its psychological costs” which included isolation from nature, loss of local customs and traditions, leaving “‘a floating’ population cut off from the land and concentrated in large cities.”
Now Pell is alert to what is lurking beneath Southern “customs and traditions,” because he says the Agrarians’ appeal to others outside the South occurred “despite the symposium’s rural utopianism and its reactionary economics,” which included segregation as well as tenant farming and sharecropping. These issues pose problems for Berry as well. In Wendell Berry: Life and Works (2009), edited by Jason Peters, Berry has sent some ambivalent messages about the Southern Agrarians, pushing off against their too Southern flavored regionalism (after all, Kentucky is a Border State, not in the deep South, but then again, the “Fugitives,” as the forerunners of the Agrarians were called in the 1920’s, got their start at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, another border state) as well as their “spurious piety,” only to later condemn himself for being too harsh in those judgments. He subsequently acknowledged his agreement with most of the philosophy contained in the Twelve “Statements of Principle” from the Symposium of 1930, centered as it was on Agrarianism vs. Industrialism.
Yet another prominent American historian, Page Smith, writing in the eighth and final volume of his wonderful but now forgotten “Peoples History of the United States,” (the last great multi-volume history of the United States by a single author) Redeeming the Time: A People’s History of the 1920’s and the Great Depression (1987), places the Southern Agrarians in one of two great American traditions, “the Classical-Christian Consciousness.” That tradition is counterpoised to the Secular-Democratic Consciousness, to which he assigns Jefferson himself, thus leaving Wendell Berry seemingly straddling two opposing camps. Here’s how Smith draws out the differences after correctly acknowledging the Agrarians concern for the land as anticipating “the present day environmental movement”:
"Throughout this work we have spoken of two separate and sharply contrasting streams of thought or intellectual traditions in American history: the Secular-Democratic Consciousness (essentially the Jefferson notion of man as good and society as perfectible through reason and science) and the Classical-Christian Consciousness, which was far more skeptical about man’s nature, believed in original sin as a fact or metaphor, viewed history as a tragic drama and all ‘progress” as limited and contingent. The Fugitives, and then the Agrarians, held fast to many of the main elements of the Classical-Christian Consciousness. More to the point, virtually every important Southern writer…however careful he or she might be to disassociate himself or herself from the Agrarians, worked within the philosophical framework of the Classical-Christian Consciousness. We could thus readily construct a kind of checklist for Southern writers: the land; the family; community; loyalty; courage; tradition; faith. While some Southern writers slipped off into the slough of racist and quasi-Fascist fantasies, others perpetuated or revived an intellectual tradition as old as the Founding Fathers. By doing so, they would come, in time to dominate the American literary scene."
So let’s consider some of the puzzling, and perhaps tragic ironies as these two streams of mostly conflicting, but sometimes overlapping traditions, play themselves out in today’s ideological landscape. Wendell Berry gives the Jefferson Lecture of 2012 to defend the concept of limits missing from the “Total Economy” of today’s hyper-competitive capitalism, limits that are part of a conservative Classical-Christian tradition, but the dominant majority of the religious conservatives following that tradition live in the South and the West, where they give rabid support to the party (As well as the Tea Party) which lives and dies by an unqualified worship of free-market capitalism, a capitalism of Prometheus Unbound, and to such an extent that an observer from another planet could be forgiven in confusing which was the stronger of the two fundamentalist religions, the Christian one or the secular economic one. When conservatives today speak of “limits,” they talk about the ones they want to place on individual behaviors, and government’s size, role and debt levels, not on the private sector’s ambitions and powers over all others. And certainly not on the compensations flowing to that sector. All the contemporary talk of “austerity” fits very nicely into the Classical-Christian tradition, especially when it’s limited to the realm of government actions to help the economy and the unemployed. Berry himself frequently uses the term “thrift,” and references to the smaller version of “economy,” by which he means its usage in classical times as the term for household management. But these austerity metaphors also nicely fit into the “common sense, kitchen table” analysis the Right likes to apply to governmental budgets, throwing much of the best of modern economics overboard – certainly Mr. Keynes and company are cast adrift at sea in this perspective.
Mr. Jefferson’s cherished small farmers, however, have been nearly entirely cannibalized by the competition, the scientific inventions and the Creative Destruction unleashed by the land-grant colleges and giant agribusiness, so that Mr. Berry must sarcastically comment in his Jefferson Lecture that “a large machine in a large, toxic, eroded cornfield is not properly speaking, an object or a sign of affection.” So much for “face-to-face” relations in the fields of the heartland; the very ground under the “I’ll Take my Stand” authors is eroding. Science itself is now contested terrain for all parties. Mr. Berry sees it as being in service to corporate agriculture and genetic engineering, while conservatives relish its role in national defense and the invention of all sorts of corporate delivered wonders, while entirely rejecting its competence in matters of global warming. Religion has continued to throw its nets of ethical restraints over all categories of personal behavior, while forgetting it ever had a Social Gospel phase, much less obligation, which once extended the same ethical measurements to the practices of the economy and other forces in society. Without a change in our contemporary ethics, Mr. Berry tells us, “the nation and its economy will conquer and destroy the country.” On these matters, I happen to think that Jefferson himself, and Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), the best known of the Social Gospelers, and certainly Karl Polanyi, would know what Berry means, and what I have written here - but I doubt that Gene Sperling does.
Yet I don’t want to give Wendell Berry the final word. He points in the right direction, on many matters, ethical and practical, yet it’s very much an open question whether his ideas can adequately grapple with the immediate economic crisis now engulfing Western Europe and the United States since 2008, and offer a bridge over the type of capitalism he is justly so critical of. After all, there is no clearer form of “limits” in today’s economic world than the one’s clamped on the theoretical range of government action for creating demand, public jobs and preventing foreclosures, courtesy of the neoliberalism which is still the dominant mode of thought in Treasury Departments and the private sector, and perhaps the White House itself. So let’s go back and see who else our teacher Professor Pells thought merited attention when capitalism collapsed back in the 1930’s.
As we return to his important chapter called “The Search for Community,” let’s try to sketch the outlines of the world as it looked to those intellectuals on the left that Pells is recommending to us, and I would second that recommendation: the work of Lewis Mumford, John Dewey and Robert Lynd, Sidney Hook and Reinhold Niebuhr.
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